By Mike Mastromatteo
The Interim

Pro-lifers are undecided as to the impact of a Manitoba court decision that allows an elderly man to escape punishment in the assisted suicide of his terminally ill wife.

Bert Doerksen, 81, of Winnipeg, admitted to killing his 78-year-old wife Susan in November, 1997, by placing her in the family car and leaving the engine running as the car sat in the garage. Mrs. Doerksen, who suffered from cancer, osteoarthritis and heart disease, was in constant pain and had expressed a desire to die.

The case was scheduled to go to trial in Manitoba August 1, but on July 28, Mr. Justice Nathan Nurgitz ordered a stay of proceedings. The judge cited Doerksen’s advanced age and deteriorating health as justification for the ruling.

While a stay of proceedings does not clear Doerksen of any alleged wrongdoing, it is generally accepted that the case will not go any further.

Since taking the action against his wife nearly three years ago, Doerksen has expressed a desire to have the Crown drop all charges against him. “I wish they [the courts] would stop hounding me,” Doerksen has said to various media.

In a statement released prior to the stay of proceedings order, Marie-Jo Laroche, executive director of the Life League of Manitoba, said Doerksen’s deteriorating health is no excuse for justice not being served.

“The focus must remain not on Mr. Doerksen’s health, but on whether there is enough evidence to ‘reasonably’ expect to secure a conviction, which, in this case, prosecutors obviously believe they have,” Laroche said.

She also suggested that “terminating anyone’s life,” whether motivated by compassion or a judgment as to an ill person’s productivity or quality of life, should still be seen as murder.

Laroche said officials with Manitoba’s League of Persons with Disabilities supported prosecution for Doerksen, despite his age and failing health. That organization has said that if charges are dropped in the Doerksen case, it sends a message that society can tolerate so-called compassionate homicide.

Alex Schadenberg, executive director of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition of Ontario, told the National Post newspaper July 28 that he is not concerned about a precedent being set in the Doerksen case. He added however, that relaxed attitudes to assisted suicide will open the door to decreased protection for those who are vulnerable or disabled.